Tax collectors are not popular today. In Jesus day they were despised, collaborators with an occupying force (Rome), and a general waste of oxygen. At least that's what the Pharisees of the day considered them as being. While the Pharisees were considered to be holy, the tax collectors were thought of as low life scum, folks that a good Pharisee would go out of his way to avoid.
With that in mind, Jesus tells an interesting parable whose two main characters are a Pharisee and a tax collector, and their dissimilar approaches to God in prayer.
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’The Pharisee pats himself on the back and tells God how lucky he is to have such a wonderful person on his team. He compares himself to the tax collector and is confident that he is superior in every way; quite the catch for God.
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Luke 18:9-14 NIV
The tax collector knows his value, at least to the world around him, and makes no assumptions concerning his standing with God. Instead, with mourning and humility, he pleads with God for mercy, something that he knows he does not deserve.
I wonder if the Pharisee had any idea that God didn't even know he was there, but had all of his attention focused on the repentant tax collector? While the Pharisee felt good about himself, and enjoyed the acclaim of others who looked up to him, he failed to realize that God didn't care about what he thought of himself, but was instead looking for those who who humble themselves before him.
Somehow I don't think things have changed today. While us modern day Pharisees are generally not so blatant about our self righteousness, we are too often guilty of comparing ourselves to the 'sinners' around us, and then feeling good about ourselves, secretly knowing that God is proud of us.
But how much better to approach the God of all creation with humility, beating our chest and realizing that we are totally unworthy of him. Thankful that he has made us, redeemed us, and brought us into his family. We should never forget that it is not because of what I am, but because of who he is.
God, have mercy on me, a sinner. So glad that he did ... and still does!